Speaking up for the ordinary Ulster view

October 20, 1995

Reviewers should declare their interests before they wield, let alone grind, their axes, and now that tit-for-tat killing may have ended in Northern Ireland perhaps there can be a cessation of tit-for-tat reviewing.

In his mightily piqued appraisal of our book, Explaining Northern Ireland (THES, October 6), it was surely in order for Steve Bruce to declare that he might have been upset by our fairly stated criticisms of his use of statistics, to which he did not, we note, reply. These criticisms, which are on pages 197-204, show that Professor Bruce's claims for the centrality of religion in explaining the politics of those described as Protestants, and the electoral performance of Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party, do not withstand scrutiny - and in one notable instance rest on a blatantly misleading use of survey data. To respond by creating a smokescreen, built on our alleged nastiness, is unprofessional, and damages the credibility of Bruce's review.

His one serious intellectual criticism of our book, that the conclusion is ordinary, namely that the conflict is national, may well be one which the proverbial citizen in the street is free to deliver, but not Professor Bruce. He has been of the view that "The Northern Ireland conflict is a religious conflict" (God Save Ulster, p249.) The denial of the allegedly ordinary view that the conflict is national has, in fact, been commonplace in academic commentary. This denial partly motivated us to write our book, one theme of which is that within each community there is a strong claim that the other community is not nationally motivated - or at least not strongly so. Moreover, many academics - Marxists, liberal economists, cultural historians, and sociologists of religion - have claimed that the conflict is "really" about something else (eg class, rival modes of production, uneven economic development, segregated education, intolerant cultures, economic inequality, poverty or religion). We believe we show otherwise.

We do not wheel out strawpersons to burn them at the stake, as Bruce suggests. Rather we present the best arguments of real academics, including Bruce, and subject them to empirical, analytical and normative scrutiny. That is our academic duty. That we had fun along the way, we cannot deny (intermittent entertainment is essential for readers), but given his lack of amusement Bruce may want to establish a memorial to the victims of Explaining Northern Ireland. If so, he should make the first donation because no other major commentator is criticised so extensively by us.

Bruce condemns Explaining Northern Ireland by contrast with the late Professor Whyte's Interpreting Northern Ireland. He is entitled to his preference. Whyte's book is very good, though it may not be the last word, and one of our major differences with Whyte was on the worth of Bruce's contributions on religion: Whyte was generous; we were critical. This consideration may not have motivated Bruce's comparison - who can know that? - but another declaration of interest was in order.

As to the accusation that we are sneering partisans, readers will have noted that the sole intellectual praise we receive from Bruce is for criticising what he assumes to be our own side - Irish nationalists. The rest of what we say, it seems, is partial and rude.

In any case, we are glad that Professor Bruce liked the phrase about a cold peace. In the interests of decommissioning academic arsenals we are not going to claim copyright, but it is a shame he ground his axe in these circumstances, especially as it has been badly chipped in the process.

JOHN MCGARRY Professor of politics BRENDAN O'LEARY Visiting professor of public policy University of Western Ontario

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